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He was alone.
Matt Hammond punched in the code that gave him access to the inner sanctum of House of Hammond and realised being alone was the one true constant in his life these days. Even Lionel Wong, the backbone of the business and usually the last to leave each evening, had gone home. Matt paused in the silence and drank in the satisfaction that came from being here.
It always felt like coming home. A feeling he'd come to look forward to during his all-too-frequent forays overseas in the past few months.
He dropped his briefcase on his desk and slumped into his high-backed leather chair. Weariness pulled at every cell in his body, but he refused to acknowledge it, or the hollow emptiness that dwelt in his chest. It'd been a helluva six months so far. Just when would life let up? He brushed the question aside. He had no time for the inanity of rhetoric right now. Each day brought its own challenge, and he would meet every one of them and win. Winning was just about all he had left.
He snatched up the collection of messages his secretary had left in the centre of his desk, a frown scoring two sharp lines between his eyebrows as the same name appeared again and again.
Jake Vance. Or, in his other persona, James Black-stonethe famous Blackstone missing heir finally returned to a glorious welcome home.
With a reflexive crunch of his fingers, Matt reduced the messages to trash and ignominiously launched them into the wastepaper basket.
He had no desire to speak with a Blackstone, whether he bore that name by choice or otherwise. The family was responsible for more misery than he cared to acknowledge. Traitors or thieves, every last one of them right downto Kimberley Blackstone. Perrini, now, he corrected himself. Hers had been the bitterest betrayal of all. He'd expected more of his cousin. She'd become his right hand in the business over the past ten years, but in the end she'd been just like her father. A Blackstone to the bone. And to think she'd believed the rivalry between the Hammonds and the Blackstones could be mended.
The slow rage that constantly burned deep within him fought to rise to the surface, but with his inimitable cool control he tamped it back down. There would be satisfaction. Everything the Blackstones had done and the list was extensivewould come home to roost.
Matt leaned back in his seat and steepled his fingers under his chin. It wouldn't be long now and he'd be the one pulling Blackstone strings. A Hammond in control, as it should have been before Howard Blackstone stripped the family of its Australian assets with his unscrupulous methods. Blackstone had made his fortune by taking what he wanted, particularly from the Hammonds, but he'd dealt one hand too many when he'd taken Marise. Matt had sworn on the man's grave that he would pay and he would. Despite the glitch in his plans when Vincent Blackstone had refused to sell out his share holding to Matt back in February, there was nothing the Blackstones could do to stop him now. Matt's people had painstakingly approached minor shareholders with enough incentive that he was now very close to success.
He gave his desk another cursory glance. Still no message from Quinn Everard. He'd expected by now that the gem broker would have a solid lead on the last of the Blackstone Rose diamonds. Perhaps Everard's contacts weren't as efficient as he'd believed. That was the trouble with stolen property. It was difficult to find. Especially property that should have been a part of Matt's family's heritage and not tainted by the Blackstone name.
With a sigh, Matt leaned forward and popped open his briefcase to remove a contract from inside. A faint hint of a smile played around his lips. Success. With the agreement of the New Zealand Pacific Pearl distributors now in his hands he could fine-tune the launch of the Matt Hammond Heirloom Range of jewellery.
His own signature range.
He'd been working hard for months on developing the line of reproduction antique jewellery, and finally it would come to fruition. A man had to grab his pleasures where he could, Matt reminded himself, especially in a life like his that had seen precious few of them in some time.
Speaking of pleasures, this little foray into the office on his way home from the airport had cost him the pleasure of putting his son, Blake, to bed. Matt flicked a look at the Patek Philippe watch his father had presented to him on his twenty-first birthday and grimaced. Yeah, it was definitely far too late to catch Blake. But there was always the morning.
No matter how empty his marriage had become before Marise's departure to Australia, at least it had left him with his son. The void around his heart squeezed a little tighter. Had his dead wife had the last laugh on him after all? No, he didn't want to go down that route. He didn't want to even consider that Blake was not his own. As an adopted child himself he knew it shouldn't matter. Love and care and upbringing created the bonds between father and son, not just blood. But the question continued to prickle, like a fine metal filing wedged under the skin.
Was Howard Blackstone Blake's real father?
The thought made his gut clench. Marise had always been fascinated with the Blackstone family. But her death five months ago, as a result of the plane crash that had also taken the life of the Blackstone patriarch, had raised more questions than answers. Questions like what the hell was she doing with Howard Blackstone in the first place? Matt knew Blackstone would have relished rubbing his nose in an affair.
He wrestled once more with the anger that threatened to boil over. Howard Blackstone. It always came down to him. But no more. By the end of the month Matt's plans would reach their ultimate conclusion and he would exact his ultimate revenge.
He got up from his chair to file the new contract, dictated a short note to his secretary and headed off for home. Tomorrow was another day. He still had the night to get through and it would be long and lonely enough.
Subtle garden lighting spread pools of gold over the rain-washed driveway as Matt turned in through the iron gates that led to his family home in Auckland's exclusive Devonport. At least the paparazzi were no longer camped at his front gate. Five months ago he'd barely been able to move without having a camera or a microphone shoved in his face. Now the furore over Marise's and Howard Blackstone's deaths had all but died away, but the bitterness still lingered.
The formality of the gardens that lined the drive had once been his mother's pride and joy. Matt still questioned his parents' decision to move to a nearby assisted-living complex after his father's stroke. Goodness knew the house was large enough for them all and modification of a suite of rooms for his parents would've been simple enough. But they'd been insistent it was time he took over the property for his family.
Some family. A wife who'd been homesick and unsettled almost from the day of their marriage and who'd abandoned their vows and their child without so much as a backward glance. Matt could never forgive her for walking out on them the way she hadand especially not when she'd gone straight into the arms of Howard Blackstone.
The garage door slid open at a touch of a button and Matt pulled his Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren into its bay, the rumble of its powerful engine fading as he turned the motor off. To one side still sat Marise's Porsche Cayenne. He really had to do something about getting rid of the Cayenne. Since she'd gone, he'd done little more than take it round the block once a month, preferring to use his other cara Mercedes sedan when taking Blake out. But like other less urgent things, dealing with the Porsche had to wait until he was ready. More important matters pressed on his time right now.
He'd told Rachel, Blake's temporary nanny, to use the thing. Marise had, after all, insisted on the vehicle for Blake's safety on the road, but Rachel had preferred to use her mother's smaller hatchback, arguing that in his child restraint Blake would be just as safe. She'd even gone onto the Land Transport Safety Authority Web site and printed the crash reports for her make and model of vehicle to prove her point. Eventually it'd been easier to give in to her demands.
But Matt knew from past experience, giving in to Rachel Kincaid's demands was a weakness that spelled trouble with a capital 'T'.
The interior of his home was softly lit, quietness all pervading. He made his way along the passage towards the stairs with the intention of checking on Blake. He could have negotiated every room in the dark; there was no need for Rachel or her motherhis housekeeper, Mrs Kincaidto have left lights on for him.
A small noise as he passed by the living room attracted his attention. His eyes alighted on a sleeping form spread out on the large couch. Rachel. Her rich nut-brown hair was pulled back in a plait, but tendrils had escaped to kiss the rim of her heart-shaped face. Like this, she looked about ten years younger than the twenty-eight he knew her to be. In fact she looked little different from the determined tomboy who had followed him and his brother, Jarrod, around as often as her mother had allowed it while they were growing up. Nothing like the suddenly sophisticated young woman he'd escorted to her high school graduation dance on the night that had seen her graduate to new levels of maturity beneath his touch. He'd betrayed her innocence, he reminded himself, forcing his wakening libido into submission, and he'd betrayed her trust. It wouldn't happen again.
She stirred again, as if aware of his scrutiny, then settled back into the plump cushions of the sofa. Her sweatshirt slid above the waistband of her jeans and slightly twisted across her ribs, showcasing the lush curves of her body. Her lips were soft and full, slightly parted as if awaiting some fairy-tale prince to come and wake her from her slumber. Matt clenched his jaw uncomfortably. What was he thinking?
Rachel Kincaid was his son's nanny, no more, no lessand he was certainly no prince, fairy tale or otherwise. What happened in the past was a mistake best forgotten and filed back into the recesses of his memory. What he needed to do now was rouse her and send her home. Goodness knew what she was still doing here, anyway. Mrs Kincaid lived in her own quartersa self-contained unit at the far end of the houseexcept for the times Matt travelled overseas. On those occasions she'd stay in one of the upstairs guest rooms so she could keep an ear out for Blake. It hadn't been necessary for Rachel to live in, and that was just the way he liked it. It was unsettling enough to have her in the house by day, but to have her live in? That would definitely stretch the bounds of sanity.
He reached forward to give her a little shake but hesitated with his hand in the air over her shoulder, the warmth of her body a tangible thing in the air between them. At her side Blake's even breathing could be faintly heard on the baby monitor. It suddenly occurred to Matt that Mrs Kincaid's quarters had been in total darkness when he'd pulled into the driveway. Strange.
Matt let his hand drop to Rachel's shoulder, his shadow crossing her face. She stirred and her eyelids flicked open. Her hazel eyes, initially unfocussed, sharpened suddenly as she realised he was there. Matt pulled his hand back, telling himself it was not regret that trickled through him because his touch had been so brief, but relief instead.
There was an accusatory note in her voice that set his hackles up instantly.
"So it would seem," he answered coolly.
"Blake was upset you weren't here at bedtime, like you promised," she persisted in the same tone of voice.
"My flight was later back than anticipated and I had to go into the office from the airport." Damn, he didn't answer to her, so why did he let her make him feel so darned guilty?
"Really? 'Had to,' Matt? On a Sunday night? You've been gone since the middle of last week." She pushed herself up from the couch and stood up to him, her five-and-a-half-foot frame no match for his six feet. "What was so much more important than spending time with your son? You forget, he's just a little boynot even four years old. He needs his father."
"I forget nothing, Rachel." For a moment the air between them thickened, his words taking on a double entendre that related more to the spectre of the past that hovered broodingly between them than the present. Matt made a sweeping motion with his hand, as if to brush away the words he now wished unspoken. "Go on, head off. Start later tomorrow. I'll get your mum to see to Blake in the morning."
He reached for the baby monitor on the couch and switched it off. He had one in his master suite downstairs. Since Marise had departed for Australia at the beginning of December last year, he'd become attuned to the noises Blake made through the night. His fatherly instinct had sent him flying up the stairs to the boy's room at the slightest indication of distress before Blake could even wake properly.
"That's the problem. She can't."
Matt stilled. "What do you mean?"
"I left a message on your cell phone," she said with growing irritation, evidenced by the tension around her full lips. "Mum's been called away. Her sister, down in Wanganui, had a fall today. She's really shaken up. Mum flew down to help her."
The ramifications of Rachel's short speech hit home hard. No Mrs Kincaid? That meant
"So I'll have to stay in house." She continued, oblivious to the silent clamour of denial in his head. "I can stay in Mum's apartment, or one of the rooms upstairs. I think upstairs would be best, given your erratic hours lately."
Matt fielded her pointed glare. "How long?"
"How long is your mother going to be in Wanganui?"